When Mia Howard, the Principal and founder of Intrepid College Prep, dropped off a book for all the new teachers to read before school started, I naturally expected it to be about the fundamentals of teaching. Therefore, when I looked down at the book The Power of a Lot of Little Things Done Well and saw legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s face staring back at me, I was more than a little confused. What in the world did basketball have to do with teaching? As I have discovered this summer through Teach for America’s summer Institute, far more than I thought.

Throughout the course of the book, author and legendary basketball coach Pat Williams highlights the coaching philosophy of his idol and mentor, John Wooden. Wooden’s storied career at UCLA is unparalleled: 10 national championships, 88 consecutive wins, six-time national coach of the year.

Wooden book tilt

So what was Wooden’s secret to success, and how does it relate to education? Wooden stressed a focus on fundamentals, even down to the seemingly trivial details. For example, before games, Wooden would remind his players to ensure there were no wrinkles in their socks to prevent blisters. Though this “sweating the small stuff” approach can be frustrating for players, Wooden argues that it is the difference between winning the championship and walking away empty handed.

Interestingly, despite his success on the basketball court, Wooden always considered himself more of a teacher than a coach. When someone asked Wooden how long he coached, he would respond, “I was a teacher for 40 years.” This summer, at Teach for America’s Institute and Intrepid’s Professional Development, I learned just how applicable Wooden’s philosophy is to teaching.

I cringe when I think back to the first lesson I taught to my rising fourth-graders at summer Institute just seven short weeks ago. I was completely overwhelmed trying to remember everything I had learned about developing objectives, preparing a lesson, and effectively managing a classroom.  Many of my students were several grade levels behind in both math and literacy. I was so focused on achieving the lofty goal of helping them catch up before the school year started, that I failed to break the unit plans down into manageable, fundamental components.

With each lesson that I teach or observe, it becomes increasingly apparent that following Coach Wooden’s coaching philosophy is the key to improving academic rigor and student outcomes in the classroom. Effective teachers are able to analyze abstract standards and objectives and break them down into their fundamental components without overlooking even the smallest details. Like Wooden’s focus on fixing sock wrinkles, these details may seem trivial to the students, but they are the key to maximizing both the quantity and quality of instruction.

Williams discusses how Wooden encouraged his players to buy into the power of “the little things.” At Intrepid, we encourage our students to do the same. Our first week of school is dedicated to investing students in our unique school culture focused on college preparation, financial literacy, and ethical development. This week is the students’ introduction to the small things, the unique “fundamentals” that maximize teacher instruction and “Prepster” learning.

Said Wooden, “I discovered early on that the player who learned the fundamentals of basketball is going to have a much better chance of succeeding and rising through the levels of competition than the player who was content to do things his own way.” This sentiment holds true for creating a successful school. When students, parents, teachers and administrators all recognize the power of common fundamentals, these small things become a much bigger thing: a culture of achievement. So whether you measure achievement in NCAA championships or TCAP scores, the wise words of John Wooden ring true: “The closest I can come to one secret of success is this: a lot of little things done well.”